The aim of all brand owners is to secure consumer loyalty above all competitors. But, as Richard Woodard suggests, this might be an unattainable - and hence unrealistic - aim.

It’s an eye-catching observation: the lines between premium white spirits categories in the UK have become increasingly “blurred” over the past two years, with consumers no longer loyal to just one category, says Reyka vodka brand manager Jonathan Cornthwaite.

But, if consumers really are promiscuously hopping from vodka to gin to rum without a qualm, should we be concerned? Or even surprised?

“Hello. I’m going to be your new friend. There’s just one thing, though: I don’t like any of your other friends and I’d like you to stop seeing them. You don’t need them now that you’ve found me because I’m so much better than they are.”

If someone ever said that in real life, you’re probably unlikely to clap them on the shoulder and buy them a pint – and rather more likely to change your 'phone number. And your locks.

The pursuit of brand loyalty, taken to its clumsy extreme, does exactly this. It demands fidelity and, preferably, exclusivity, with little or no reciprocation beyond the supply of a particular product. Maybe that worked in the past, when people often identified themselves as an unswerving adherent to a particular brand. For my parents’ generation, the statement “I’m a Gordon’s drinker”, or “I’ve always been a Beefeater man” was an assertion of their individual character.

But, people don’t work like that any more. Study after study shows brand loyalty is declining, and has been for decades. According to Belgian-based marketing professor Steven Van Belleghem, the old 80/20 rule (that 20% of your customers account for 80% of your turnover) has already evolved into a 60/40 rule – and is slowly moving towards 50/50, where “loyal” and “disloyal” consumers generate the same amount of income.

Why? People burble on about the speed and immediacy of modern communications, but research suggests the roots of this behavioural change run much deeper into our broader society. French academic Jean-Noël Kapferer has looked at the etymology of loyalty, considering the words used respectively in English, French and German: brand loyalty, fidélité à la marque, and markentreue.

The origins of all of these words colour their intellectual and emotional resonances even today, he argues. So “loyalty” has connections with law, “fidélité” with relationships and especially marriage, and “markentreue” with religious belief.

All three are potentially strong influences, but arguably declining ones in the Western European countries in which they are used. Fewer of us are church-goers, fewer of us accept all legislation without question and fewer of us remain with the same partner throughout our adult life. Instead, Kapferer argues, we have a succession of “fidélités” – and a greater tolerance of the “infidélités” of ourselves and others.

Against this backdrop, and within a capitalist socio-economic model that creates ever-broader choice through a mix of economic growth and deregulation, Kapferer believes it’s unrealistic for brands to expect exclusive, “monogamous” loyalty.

(Not that this would necessarily stop them from trying. Most companies and brands would, theoretically, love to utterly dominate their market sectors, beating the existing competition into submission and snuffing out newcomers before they have a chance to establish themselves (did anyone say Microsoft?). That’s why we have regulatory authorities and competition law, as a state-enforced counterweight to unfettered corporate power.)

In this world, the relationship between consumer and brand is no longer one of religious faith, marriage vows or quasi-legal bonds. Instead – and this is where we came in – they’re friends.

And, crucially, friends don’t demand exclusivity. They probably share certain values, world views and attitudes as a common bond between them, but they also allow for the existence of other, similar relationships with third parties.

Think of the brand-consumer relationship as one of friendship and the marketing approach begins to change. So-called loyalty programmes, viewed through this prism, become shallow attempts to “buy” friendship and loyalty. They rely on enforcing behaviour change by repetition – you keep purchasing to gain money off future purchases, and so on – but they don’t create a lasting emotional bond.

Instead, brand owners should be investing in acts of friendship – in other words, they should try to earn the consumer’s love and respect by showing love and respect themselves. 

Fine, but how does all of this help white spirits brands operating in the UK? First of all, that “blurring of the lines” alluded to by Cornthwaite isn’t necessarily bad news. It creates a market that is less predictable, but also more dynamic: If consumers are migrating between categories with scarcely a thought, that implies that established categories (such as vodka) need to be on top of their game, while emerging or declining categories (like gin, Tequila, cachaça) are potentially empowered by a greater willingness to experiment on the part of the consumer.

For individual brands, the winners will be those who can create the strongest level of “friendship” with their target consumer, by earning their admiration, respect and trust.

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts called the brands which pull off this trick “Lovemarks”. Yes, I know – but forget the name and look at the key factors Roberts pinpoints for successful brands: Mystery (telling great stories, tapping into dreams, inspiring people); sensuality (connecting with the consumer through all of their senses), and intimacy (engendering commitment, empathy and passion).

You don’t get that when someone gives you a money-off voucher, tells you in dictatorial fashion that they’re best – or even when a pretty girl in a short skirt passes you a free glass of something in a bar (although it might help). It’s no coincidence that Grey Goose’s new global campaign, Fly Beyond, focuses less on the glamour (or even the taste), and more on the “romance” of the brand story.

Sure, that brand story takes a few liberties with the facts (as readers of this past column will recall), but that’s not the point. The new campaign aims to develop Grey Goose’s relationship with its consumer by giving it a new level of depth, warmth and intimacy. Will it stop those consumers from also drinking other vodka brands, or even dabbling in gin and rum? No, because that’s not how consumer behaviour works any more. But, if the campaign works, it will give the brand a crucial edge on its competitive set by earning its customers’ respect and admiration.

In a world where consumers are increasingly happy to play around among an ever larger repertoire of brands – and categories – it’s a way of thinking that others would do well to heed.